Report on The Colombian Peace Process: A Roundtable. Centre for Latin American Studies University of Cambridge, 11 November 2013

The Colombian Peace Process: A Roundtable

 Centre for Latin American Studies

University of Cambridge

11 November 2013

After a year of negotiations the Government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have reached an agreement on two of a six point agenda to end the armed conflict in Colombia. The scepticism of many Colombians contrasts with unprecedented achievements in more than 30 years of dialogue between FARC and different Colombian administrations. The optimism of some political analysts about reaching a point of no return in the peace process can be jeopardised by the lack of national and particularly, regional ownership of the process. This mixed picture contains challenges not only for Colombian policy makers but also for the role that the international community should play in order to contribute to build long-lasting and legitimate peace in Colombia. 

Bearing this context in mind, a group of scholars were invited to discuss the prospects for peace in Colombia. Panelists included: the former British Ambassador in Colombia, John Dew; Andrei Gómez (University of Oxford); Clara Sandoval (University of Essex); Par Engstrom (Institute of the Americas, University College London); Roddy Brett (University of St Andrews), Nick Morgan (Newcastle University), and Grace Livingstone (University of Cambridge), who chaired the roundtable. These notes contain the main ideas expressed during the event.

  1. After five decades of armed conflict in Colombia and several failed attempts to find a political solution to the conflict, a peace agreement between the Government and the FARC guerrillas, experts agreed, might be feasible. It was also acknowledged that even if the peace process has been going on for over a year now, discussions to get there have been going on for several years.
  2. Although the importance of the peace process cannot be underestimated, it is necessary to remember that this is just a peace process with one of the armed actors in the Colombian conflict, an actor that is in a weak position, at least politically and militarily.
  3. Some speakers discussed that, although these negotiations are crucial for the future of the country, the conflict with the FARC is only one of Colombia’s manifold problems. There are a wide range of deep-rooted issues in Colombia that have to be faced, such as strengthening democratic politics and the rule of law, designing policies to reduce poverty and income inequality, planning a meaningful agrarian reform, improving security, promoting infrastructure and implementing further reforms to ensure Colombia’s economic growth.
  4. The majority of the experts also noted that both parties (the Government and the FARC) are under great pressure to conclude the talks before the 2014 presidential election, given that former President Uribe is one of the fiercest enemies of the peace process. Additionally, the pressure of reaching an agreement might have a negative impact in the way key points are discussed. In particular, all the experts showed their concern in relation to the fifth point of the agenda, related to victims.
  5. Some of the participants considered other reasons that confirm the importance of moving on with the peace talks. For instance, they indicated that there are very important trade related goals shaping the process (to facilitate foreign direct investment in the country). Other speakers pointed out that President Santos wants to change the image of Colombia outside the country.
  6. The outcome of the negotiations will have to take due account of international standards binding Colombia, particularly in the area of accountability, given the possibility that the International Criminal Court could exercise jurisdiction over the situation in Colombia while looking at cases such as those of the falsos positivos. In this regard, while it is clear that the event at Cambridge was about the peace process, various references were made by all the participants in relation to the obligations of Colombia to act with due diligence in the investigation of members of the military forces and others who could be implicated in conflict related violations of human rights as well as of humanitarian law.
  7. There was general consensus at the roundtable that if a peace agreement is signed, it would be mainly about ‘negative peace’. Santos has already stated that, for example, the agreement will not touch private property and the fact that the Victims and Land Restitution Law is about restitution and not about land reform, shows that both the peace process and the transitional justice process are not aiming at structural change in Colombia.
  8. Even if the ongoing peace talks in Havana only aspire to achieve ‘negative peace’, all the experts recognized that there is a window of opportunity to incorporate the root causes of the conflict in the peace talks in order to move towards a long-lasting peace.
  9. The experts who were discussing specific cases noted that the process in Havana is not perceived as important by the people living in the regions. They do not have a lot of information about the process and if they are concerned about it, it is for different reasons, such as how this process would affect current trading relations in the region or change labour markets.
  10. From a victims’ perspective, the process was criticized by several speakers as failing to allow the participation of victims. They made explicit reference to the complex procedure that needs to be completed in order to participate in the process. They also expressed concern about the lack of direct mechanisms to participate or to identify how the input from others than those negotiating in Havana is taken into consideration. Local ownership of the peace process was noted to be a crucial element for the successful implementation of transitional justice mechanisms in a post-conflict scenario.
  11. The support of Chile, Venezuela, Norway and Cuba was regarded as highly positive and helpful for the negotiations in order to move towards a legitimate peace.
  12. The role of the US in relation to the peace process was also noted and contrasted with  its previous role during the negotiations under the Pastrana administration. The US stand on the peace process would be central to guarantee the implementation of an eventual agreement, but also to deal effectively with drug trafficking.
  13. From a maximalist approach, the Santos-FARC peace talks could be seen as a means to solve the real problems of Colombia, whereas from a minimalist position they are seen as the way to end the armed conflict between the parties. So far, the negotiation teams are still trapped between these two approaches. Nevertheless, they have moved a long way since the negotiations started. Reaching an agreement may not bring structural transformations. However, it will constitute a window of opportunity for further change.
  14. The international community could play a fundamental role in helping Colombia to face the huge challenges that the implementation of a peace agreement will bring and to achieve a sustainable and long-lasting peace.


New article: Safeguarding political guarantees in the Colombian peace process: Have Santos and FARC learnt the lessons from the past?

Safeguarding political guarantees in the Colombian peace process: Have Santos and FARC learnt the lessons from the past?



This article discusses the lessons of previous peace processes between the government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). It has two policy implications. In regards to Colombia, it suggests that safeguarding the lives of FARC-demobilised members is necessary for the current peace process to succeed, hence it proposes a hybrid Specialised Protection Force (SPF). In terms of peace building, the article discusses the challenges for SPFs to avoid becoming tools of foreign policy diplomacy that perpetuate conflicts. The article aims to contribute to both the critique of liberal peace and the negotiation teams in the current Colombian peace process. 

Keywords: Colombia, FARC, Unión Patriótica, Peace Support Operations

Available here.

Is BACRIM just a new name for paramilitaries?

Is BACRIM just a new name for paramilitaries?

By Grace Livingstone

Should academics accept the Colombian government’s term ‘BACRIM’ (bandas criminales/criminal groups), when the evidence shows that these armed groups are largely made up of former paramilitaries, that they target the same people and that they frequently collude with the state?

There is a danger in using the term BACRIM that we let the Colombian authorities – local and national – off the hook and give the impression that tackling them will be a simple matter of arresting a few crooks. In fact it will be far more complex because these armed groups control territory, are economically powerful and have strong ties to local political elites.

The most recent report by the  United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia (Jan 2012), pointed out that 53% of BACRIM are former paramilitaries, that they target social leaders and they have colluded with local authorities and state security forces.

I have pasted the relevant section below and highlighted some of the key points. The full report can be seen here.

Illegal armed groups that emerged after demobilization of paramilitary organizations

37. In 2011, OHCHR-Colombia noted with concern the continuous expansion of illegal armed groups that emerged after the demobilization of paramilitary organizations. These groups, which are deeply involved in drug trafficking and other criminal activities, generally avoid confrontation with security forces and have a devastating impact on the population.

38. The High Commissioner expresses her great concern about the increasing violence caused by these groups, including against social leaders and public officials. The number of massacres and victims attributed to such groups continues to rise, especially in Antioquia and Córdoba. This violence occurs during confrontations between groups or within the same group, occasionally against guerrilla groups, and in several instances during direct attacks against the population. The Police reported that 53 per cent of the members of these groups who have been captured or killed to date were demobilized paramilitaries.

39. These illegal armed groups are present in most departments and have significant capacity to recruit, including children and adolescents, and use criminal structures and
sicarios to support their activities. To carry out their criminal activities, these groups control territory, restrict the freedom of movement of the population, and perform a “social control”, imposing their code of conduct and public sanctions, and “resolving” social conflicts, often brutally. In the case of ERPAC, due to the absence of “opposing” groups and the limited State presence in the area, there is little, if any, outside public awareness of the group’s impact on the population.

40. In February, the Government convened its first National Security Council to address threats posed by these groups. It prioritized inter-institutional coordination in order to advance in the investigation, prosecution and dismantling of their support structures.

41. Combating these groups should be part of an integrated strategy, and not be limited to the use of armed force by the Police and the Military, which must strictly adhere to human rights law in performing their task. The strategy to dismantle these groups should include policies to overcome poverty and marginalization, in particular for children and adolescents, as well as protection measures for local authorities and judicial officials.

42. OHCHR-Colombia continues to be concerned about indications that these groups benefit from the collusion of some local authorities and members of security forces, due primarily to corruption, intimidation and threats. In May, agents of the Technical Investigation Unit and the Attorney General’s Office arrested 37 officials in Nuquí and Bahía Solano, Chocó, including members of the Police, the judicial system and local administrations, for collaborating with these groups.

43. To support their criminal activities, groups have forcibly appropriated or retained properties previously stolen by paramilitary groups and their networks, which may be included in the Government’s land restitution policies. Thus, the increased violence by these groups represents an undeniable risk for people seeking to recover their land and for the sustainability of the overall restitution process. An illustration of this is the killing and threats against leaders and other people involved in land restitution processes in the region of Urabá.


An in-depth of analysis of  ‘Colombia’s New Armed Groups written by Markus Schultze Kraft for the International Crisis Group in May 2007 can be found here.

The recently published OHCHR-Colombia report 2012 is available here. The discussion of post-demobilisation groups can be found in paragraphs 86-89.